Netflix has made great strides in legitimizing itself as a source of quality filmmaking to compete with bigger distributors and in recent years the streaming service seems to have embraced an action-heavy lineup including one of its most streamed originals earlier in 2020 with “Extraction”. Now in July Netflix has debuted another action-laden feature, this time a comic adaptation called “The Old Guard”. Based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka who also wrote the screenplay and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the first black woman to direct a comic book movie, “The Old Guard” sees Charlize Theron star as Andy, the leader of a crew of immortal centuries-old warriors who, along with a new recruit, find themselves at odds with a pharmaceutical business mogul who seeks to profit from their immortality. Fun, engaging and possessing memorable characters “The Old Guard” might not do much to redefine its genre, but it manages to stand out nonetheless.
“The Old Guard” follows Theron’s Andy and her crew of immortals comprised of Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), lovers Joe (Marwin Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and the newly recruited Nile (KiKi Layne) who has just discovered her immortal abilities as they seek to take down big pharma businessman Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) after he discovers their potential with the help of a man named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). As Nile bonds with her new team we learn a bit about the relationships the crew has formed and their struggles to find purpose with lives that won’t end, although we also discover that eventually they will die as their immortality will randomly stop without warning. Andy, being the oldest of the crew, is the most seasoned and experienced warrior who has lived through countless battles, conflicts and changes in the world around her and just so happens to be the only woman in the group after her first immortal partner was sentenced to a terrible fate. This leads us to her budding mentor relationship with Nile, a young modern day woman who is the first new recruit in some time and gives Andy a chance to redeem herself.
Theron, who has proven her action prowess in films like “Aeon Flux” and “Atomic Blonde”, once again brings her A-game to this film both as an action star and as an actress in general. As usual she elevates the film, even at its most cliché of moments, to awesome heights completely owning every combat scene she’s in and presenting a clearly established personality and perspective for her character and her worldly wisdom. KiKi Layne is her exact opposite as both an actress and as her character Nile. She’s a relative newcomer to the scene with her most notable role being in the exceptional “If Beale Street Could Talk”. Layne proves here that she can take on heavy action roles as well bringing a sense of compassion and delicacy, but attitude and her own capable fighting prowess to marine-turned-immortal Nile. They’re a great pairing who work off each other well and, at times, feel like they’re learning from each other for as actresses and as characters which makes for an even more believable dynamic. The rest of the cast is fun too, but these two actresses get most of the screen time and development and thankfully they don’t waste it.
The action is, of course, the main draw of this film and it’s definitely worth the experience. While I wish we got more long shots it’s not cut to death like many action-heavy movies are these days keeping the exchanges well in focus and providing a great sense of space and where the characters are at any given moment. Every action set piece is well shot and choreographed making for believable combat but pulse-pounding action never leaving us disappointed. Nothing drags too long, nothing goes by too quick. It’s just pure adrenaline-charged entertainment made even more enjoyable by how well the film establishes the abilities and experience these characters have in the field. Seeing them sling guns over their shoulders knowing someone else is there to grab it or handle a bladed weapon with prowess feels fluid and natural to these warriors who are clearly a well oiled machine of a team after literal lifetimes of working beside each other. With that said, when we see Nile enters the pictures she’s much less smooth and clearly out of sync because she doesn’t have that practice. Little details like that help make this one of the most fun and well thought out action films of the year so far in terms of presentation.
What weighs down “The Old Guard” though is that it doesn’t really stray away from convention. What it does is embrace and enhance ideas and cinematic approaches that have worked in the past giving these clichés its own special spin. Like I always say, it’s not what clichés you use but how you use them that counts and “The Old Guard” uses everything perfectly. It’s right up there with the likes of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “John Wick” in terms of its quality action, however it lacks a few special ingredients that prevent it from reaching the heights of said films as an overall product. There’s also this anti-pharma message which is a timely theme fitting of how the world might actually react to the discovery of immortality, but it’s a bit heavy handed choosing to brand big pharma as a horrible entity with no morals and only barely touching on the more nuanced questions that could arise from such a dilemma. It would have been interesting to see the warriors struggle with their own responsibility to the world. We never really get to see them struggle with how their immortality could benefit humanity instead seeing some of them view their situation as more of a curse. I feel like story wise there were much more interesting and complex ideas that could have made “The Old Guard” that much more engaging and unique.
In the end I rather enjoyed this flick. The action is by far the best reason to watch but the work done by Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne and the rest of the cast to flesh out their characters is more than most action films ever try to do these days and seeing them kick ass and rush into battle putting all of their skills to the test is just so satisfying to watch. Complimented by great choreography and fun camera work, “The Old Guard” reaches levels of entertainment only the best action films of recent years have been able to achieve and while its story and deeper themes could have used more imagination and it clearly borrows shamelessly from familiar formulas the fact is those formulas do actually work and the character development and subtle exploration of the mythology of the warriors helps offset its lack of narrative bite. Overall “The Old Guard” is a solid, watchable and incredibly fun standout in the action and comic book genres for 2020 and, potentially, a fun start to a new franchise I can’t wait to see continue to grow.